Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

A close-up of an artist embroidering flower patterns

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

Zhang Li, a Gu embroidery artist, demonstrates her skills at an exhibition held at the Milan Art & Events Center from December 9 to 15.

From December 9 to 15, the exhibition “Let’s Meet Shanghai: Gu-style Embroidery Exhibition” took place at the Milan Art & Events Center in Italy. The exhibition also celebrated the 40th anniversary of the twin relationship between Milan and Shanghai.

iDEALShanghai traveled to the Italian metropolis with the special exhibition and shared stories of Shanghai’s intangible cultural heritage with the citizens of Milan.

Guxiu, or Gu-style embroidery, a Shanghainese style of sewing created by the women of the Gu family in 1559, originated in the city’s Songjiang District. It has been passed down and developed for over four centuries, surviving turbulent times to the present day with its own unique artistic style.

Old Chronicles of Songjiang Indicating guxiu say, “Birds and flowers can be embroidered on a small handkerchief while human figures can be embroidered on a small bag.” Such exquisite skills have never been found in other fields.

The style is also called huaxiu, or embroidery painting, because it incorporates Songjiang style painting.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

A display board outside the exhibition hall details the theme, organizers and time of the Gu Embroidery Showcase event.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

Fiona Li holds a moon-shaped fan in front of the cityscape of Milan.

For guxiu artisans, needles are pens and strings are lines, helping artisans to “paint” an image in their mind. Their works are difficult to distinguish from traditional Chinese ink wash paintings.

Songjiang district has come back to life guxiu over the past century and has cultivated more than 20 guxiu heirs of craftsmanship. Their embroidery works are now popular across Europe, North America and Asia.

Shanghai took eight exquisite guxiu plays in Milan, as well as traditional Chinese musical performances.

The motifs of the eight exhibitions presented in Milan include flowers, grass and insects, human figures, fish and weeds, calligraphy, fans and fishing scenes. There was also an interactive activity at the show, where you could take a selfie with one of the exhibits, post the photo on a social media platform with #MeetGuXiu to earn a souvenir from Shanghai.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

Gu embroidery work and qipao with Gu couture patterns are presented at the Milan Art & Events Center.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei / SHINE

IDEALShanghai reporter Shirlene Gu examines a Gu embroidery work at the Milan Art & Events Center.

Zhang Li, 36, a xiuniang – one who designs and manufactures embroidery – traveled to Milan to demonstrate her skills at the exhibition.

Zhang’s work is an embroidered version of “Peony Painting,” a painting from the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), which is now housed in the Beijing Palace Museum. A difficulty in its embroidery is the overlapping of the petals, which require various methods of sewing.

When the job was done, the peony was even brighter and brighter than that in the original painting.

Zhang said she created guxiu work for 17 years.

“I was a student at a vocational school in Songjiang and saw that the guxiu The workshop of Songjiang Electronic Instrument Factory was looking for heirs of craftsmanship in my school, ”she said. “I attended the orientation and was deeply drawn to guxiu at first sight. Then I signed up for training and made it my job.

“I feel very honored to show my work in Milan, a world famous metropolis and ‘capital of fashion’. I hope this exhibition can leave a deep impression on the people of Milan and allow foreign friends to enjoy the charm of traditional Chinese culture.

Zhang also took her workbench to Milan, where she showed off her unique embroidery skills while making needlework in peach blossom.

The artist revealed how a very fine string can be divided into 32 strands. From there, she woven her magical embroidery skills into an extremely delicate and vivid pattern. The finest thread is used for embroidering things like the lines on a dragonfly’s wing.

“There are about 16 sewing skills and over 1,500 colors in guxiu. A good embroiderer must choose the right one, each of the little flowers needs more than a week of work, ”she told iDEALShanghai.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan


Fiona Li (right) and Shirlene Gu learn Gu embroidery from Xiuniang Zhang Li (left).

The first representatives of guxiu were Lady Miao and Han Ximeng, both from the Gu Mingshi family, who had won a jinshi (a higher imperial examination diploma) in the 38th year of Emperor Jiajing of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

With exquisite skills of both embroidery and traditional Chinese painting, Han Ximeng developed normal embroidery in painting-embroidery, and promoted it as an art after more than 20 years of practice.

Most of Han’s works were inspired by famous paintings created between the 10th and 14th centuries. Her silk figures capture vivid facial expressions, and her realistic style has greatly influenced Su embroidery in neighboring Jiangsu Province.

After more than 400 years, Gu style embroidery has been passed down from generation to generation.

In May 2006, guxiu has been listed as one of the country’s national intangible cultural heritages.

Dai Mingjiao, born in 1922 in Songjiang, who acquired all skills including various stitches, sewing techniques and color selection, was one of the first national representative handcraft heirs of guxiu intangible cultural heritage. She embroidered about 40 works and wrote a book called “Primary Exploration of Gu Embroidery Stitches”. In 2005, she was recognized as “the remarkable heir of Chinese folk culture craftsmanship”.

If you are interested in this rare Chinese art and want to learn more, the Songjiang Museum is the place to go. It brings together collections of guxiu, including works by Han Ximeng and Dai Mingjiao, which are on permanent display.

Gu-style embroidery in Milan

Li Fei and Gu Xiaoying / SHINE

Musicians perform Jiangnan sizhu (string and wind music) during the exhibition.

About Octavia A. Dorr

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